Opinion/Comment, Politics

“Government’s anti-protest laws designed to tell you what to do with your money”

Politicians are frightening. Here are two good examples.

By Jenna Price

The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced he is planning to introduce laws which will stop modern environmental activism. The Leader of the Opposition has described the Prime Minister’s words as a thought bubble. They are both dangerous. One wants to limit your liberty, the other trivialises Morrison’s plans. These are the people who are our political leaders.

First, to the Prime Minister, who made his comments in a speech to the Queensland Resources Council Annual Lunch. He said Australia faced three challenges: anarchism by environmental protesters, the disruption of resource companies’ commercial operations; and secondary boycotts by environmental groups that target businesses providing goods or services to companies in the resource sector.

AGL faced several protests in 2014-15 over its then plans to extract coal seam gas near Gloucester.
AGL faced several protests in 2014-15 over its then plans to extract coal seam gas near Gloucester.

His response to those challenges is to outlaw them, to make it comfortable for companies who are destroying the planet. No wonder Australians despair of politicians and their handiwork.

If you aggregate all the surveys about climate change, the Australian Election Study, Ipsos, Essential, even the ABC’s folksy Australia Talks, the results show that the majority of Australians are concerned. They believe it exists, there is somewhere between 55 to 70 per cent agreement. It gets a little murkier when Australians are asked what they would do about it.

“There are big ideological and demographic fractures in that majority,” says social researcher Rebecca Huntley, whose new book about climate and communication is out next year. Some people don’t want to be inconvenienced by Extinction Rebellion, others don’t mind a bit of Lock The Gate.

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Images of protesters gluing themselves to infrastructure might make good pictures for scaremongering television, Morrison’s attack is not really on those people. It is much more sinister. These attacks are on you, me and what we can do and know about our investments, which is why the Prime Minister’s plans will never ever work.

About 10 years ago now, I started to take superannuation seriously. I’d stopped thinking of it as a money pot for my lovely husband’s next wife and had a meeting with a planner from my superannuation fund. How could I invest my sizeable super without destroying the planet?

Ten years later, my ethical fund is outperforming all the others. No fossil fuels. No armaments. No tobacco. No gambling. It’s a top 10 fund and it delivers fabulous returns.

But my fabulous fund and the companies in which it invests didn’t get that way by accident. Campaigners have been working for decades to stop super funds from investing in companies, which damage our lives. Divestment campaigns work wonders – just look at the successful actions taken at the Australian National University, which divested from fossil fuel investment. The Prime Minister’s proposed laws would stop that kind of activism. The activists who brought you ethical funds and ethical investments would easily be undone by laws like these.

Thomas Clarke, the editor of the Oxford Handbook of the Corporation, says there are already laws to deal with unwarranted violence or disruption of people going about their business. “But with his imagined secondary boycott legislation, Morrison would be embarking on the foundations of an authoritarian state to protect the fossil fuel industries from lawful protest, and disinvestment campaigns. People have a right to say where and why their money is going to be invested, and here Morrison is trying to take away a fundamental right in a free society. So much for his lightweight, marketing based, cheeky chappie approach to politics. His approach will rightly be rejected by all sensible quarters of politics, as one of his dafter ideas.”

As for putting pressure on super funds? “That is precisely what he’s playing at,” says Julien Vincent of Market Forces, a shareholder advocacy group focussing on the environment.

Tensions erupt over Melbourne mining conference
Protesters were ripped away from a mining conference in Melbourne causing mass tension.

“The risk is not just to environmental groups but to all consumers because it will inevitably restrict their ability to get information about the ethics and environmental behaviours of companies and financial institutions.”

Vincent says that such laws would make it very difficult for information provision. “It will make it harder [for activists] to put information in front of people about what their super funds are investing in,” he says.

“It will make it harder for for people to line up their personal financial decisions with their ethical values.”

That can be boiled down to this. The Prime Minister is planning laws to stop me from taking the best possible investment advice because some of that advice is predicated on information activism.

Treasurer Scott Morrison.
PM Scott Morrison.Credit:AAP

For those of you thinking more broadly than your own hip pocket, you good people and true, Ariadne Vromen, professor of political sociology at the University of Sydney and my PhD supervisor, says the Prime Minister’s actions show he is trying to delegitimise environmental activism but believes Australians will redouble their protest efforts if they don’t feel heard. Her speciality is political participation and she says Australians protest when they don’t feel heard, she says. There is no demonstration that the Prime Minister is listening to voters or that there is a relationship between decision makers and citizens which goes beyond elections. If an election were held tomorrow, I’d struggle to know who to vote for. The bloke who’s trying to micromanage my superannuation or the one who thinks that’s just a thought bubble.

As for Morrison’s boycotts, bet it won’t be restricted to environmental activists for long. Big business has other buddies.

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He said: “The right to protest does not mean there is an unlimited licence to disrupt people’s lives and disrespect your fellow Australians.”

But that is exactly what it means. Protesters disrupt. They make life difficult for those carrying on the work of climate destroyers. On a good day, they make it impossible for new coal mines to be built and more pollution to be spewed out.

And on a great day, they do that by putting pressure on banks not to fund Adani and stopping those poisonous activities forever. Good on them.

Jenna Price is a Sydney Morning Herald columnist and academic at the University of Technology Sydney


First published at The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 5 November 2019. See; https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/the-prime-minister-s-anti-protest-laws-are-attacks-on-investors-too-20191104-p537bj.html

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